Love and truth together: A response to Sarah Grove

February 20th, 2015

On February 2 Ministry Matters published an article entitled “Rejecting conversion therapy, accepting love” by Sarah Grove. Grove is a self-styled “queer theologian” and pastoral psychotherapy trainee who is interning at a professional practice near Nashville, Tennessee. Unfortunately, the first designation almost completely overshadows the second, resulting in an agenda-driven opinion piece that contains a number of inaccurate and uninformed claims.

The article begins by describing the personal suffering that Grove endured before, during and after her “coming out” to herself and her world. Most of her difficulties are blamed on folk who are “angels of death” bearing “messages of hate” ― apparently anyone concerned about homosexual orientation and gay identity or advocating for a traditional sexual ethic. But the article’s main targets are therapists and counseling professionals who practice “conversion therapy,” which is defined as “non-evidence based measures that seek to reorient or ‘repair’ LGBT people to a permanent heterosexual, cisgender (opposite of transgender) orientation.” As confirmation of this view, readers are referred to a Huffington Post Gay Voices report that applauds the politically-motivated goal of discrediting and ultimately banning such intervention.

Because the article’s overall assumptions are based on what Dr. Mark Yarhouse of Regent University calls “the Gay Script,” all of its other opinions are biased in a certain direction. The script, which is quickly becoming the “conventional wisdom” of contemporary Western culture, goes something like this: Same-sex attractions are natural or even God-given; they signal a homosexual orientation and are essentially “who you are;” therefore, coming to terms with and adopting a lesbian, gay or bisexual identity and engaging in intimate same-sex behavior will lead to authentic self-actualization and personal fulfillment.

But in his work with same-sex attracted individuals, Yarhouse has observed that not everyone chooses to embrace and act on this worldview. Instead, some decide to make distinctions between attraction, orientation and identity. They do not believe that one level naturally or necessarily must follow after the other, nor do they need to act out sexually in order to feel fulfilled. He calls this “the Three Tier Distinction.”

International surveys have tended to confirm Yarhouse’s anecdotal observations. As a well-researched and footnoted Wikipedia article notes, “the studies tend to pose two sets of questions. One set examines self-report data of same-sex sexual experiences and attractions while the other set examines self-report data of personal identification as homosexual or bisexual. Fewer research subjects identify as homosexual or bisexual than report having sexual experiences or attraction to a person of the same sex.” (Emphasis mine) Though there are probably multiple ways of interpreting this data, at the very least it indicates that not everyone chooses to follow Grove’s own preferred developmental path.

The article also fails to distinguish between the various kinds of therapeutic modalities and faith-based programs that help men and women manage and, in many cases, overcome their unwanted same-sex attractions. Instead, they are lumped all together under the single category of “conversion therapy.” While it is correct to say that one specific methodology ― reparative therapy ― attempts to “repair” sexual orientation through secular, psychoanalytically-based practices, the same is not true for most faith-based programs. Their primary goal is to lead the sexually confused, broken and sinful to Christ so that he can heal and redeem them as he decides. That is usually accomplished by using a combination of small group interaction, Bible study and prayer.

And while “change” or “transformation” is the desired outcome of most of the faith-based programs, that can take many forms ― from a diminishment of same-sex attractions, to an increase in opposite-sex attractions that opens up the prospect of marriage, to a commitment to live a chaste single life if forbidden desires remain strong. Yet all of this is dismissed in the article as “hateful” and “death dealing.”

There is also no apparent knowledge of recent research proving sexual orientation can be remarkably fluid and change spontaneously and naturally over time, often for unexplained reasons. Dr. Lisa Diamond is a well known expert on female homosexuality. A lesbian and gay marriage advocate, Diamond shook up the therapeutic community in 2009 when she released the results of her study of sexual fluidity in women. Her most recent findings were announced in 2013 at a symposium at Cornell University. (The video/PowerPoint presentation can be accessed here.)

I analyzed Diamond’s new research extensively in a blog post last year, and this is the summary of her findings: 1. fluidity in identity, desires (orientation) and behavior is NOT specific to women but a general feature of human sexuality, one which is also confirmed by historical and cross-cultural literature; 2. the various sexual categories currently in use (LGBTQI, etc.) are useful heuristics (mental shortcuts, rules of thumb, educated guesses or stereotypes), but though “they have meaning in our culture, … we have to be careful in presuming that they represent natural phenomena;” and 3. it is “tricky” to use these categories for advocating rights based on the concept of immutability “now that we know it is not true … As a community, the queers have to stop saying: ‘Please help us, we were born this way and we can’t change’ as an argument for legal standing.” (Minutes 37:27, 38:55 and 43:15) Diamond also pointed out that adolescent and young adult sexuality was particularly subject to change, most often from the late teens to early 30s. Yet these are some of the very people that Grove proposes boxing into a potentially premature gay identity.

So, if sexual orientation can and does change spontaneously, what is the problem with seeking divine intervention to help facilitate that change?

The contention that there is no scientific evidence to support orientation change efforts is only partially accurate. As the American Psychological Association’s “Appropriate Affirmative Responses to Sexual Orientation Distress and Change Efforts” guidelines of 2009 state, “there are no studies of adequate scientific rigor to conclude whether or not recent SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts) do or do not work to change a person’s sexual orientation.” And one widely touted study done by Dr. Robert Spitzer in 2003 was later repudiated by the researcher because of shoddy methodology. But Dr. Mark Yarhouse and Dr. Stanton Jones conducted a more recent study of men and women involved in faith-based programs connected to the now defunct Exodus International. By correcting many of Spitzer’s shortcomings, they were able to more accurately conclude that “change of homosexual orientation appears possible for some and that psychological distress did not increase on average as a result of the involvement in the change process.”

A draft of Spitzer’s “apology” letter to the gay community acknowledges that his study ― and actually all so-called “scientific” research into sexuality ― is fatally flawed. Why? Because it is all based on self-report, which itself is based on subjective feelings that cannot be measured for validity and may be remembered differently over time.

In other words, personal experience can be a very fickle foundation for making major life decisions. But if the personal experiences and self-understanding of LGBT persons must be respected, then it is only fair that the same treatment be extended to those who choose not to act on their same-sex attraction or who repudiate a homosexual orientation and gay identity. (See here, here, here and here.) How can that happen if pastoral caregivers refuse to even refer someone who might desire a different outcome than the one Grove herself has chosen?

The exclusively “affirming” approach touted in this article may be the only style currently recommended by the American Psychological Association, but it is in direct conflict with the guidelines of other professional bodies that recognize the inestimable value of client-directed treatment. As the American Association of Pastoral Counselors policy statement on “Client Relationships” reads: “We show sensitive regard for the moral, social, and religious values and beliefs of clients and communities. We avoid imposing our beliefs on others, although we may express them when appropriate in the pastoral counseling process.” Mature pastoral counselors wholeheartedly agree to abide by these guidelines knowing that they are the best way to truly respect the dignity and autonomy of those they are called to love.

Karen Booth is the executive director of Transforming Congregations and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She blogs at

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